Tag Archives: pitching

Rick Porcello’s Closing Argument

rick-porcello-detroit-tigers-e547e740e740d09e_large

It was just a couple of months ago that I wrote about Porcello’s breakout season and then I did it again as he broke out even further four weeks later. This was the year that Rick Porcello made the leap from really good #5 starter to really good starter without the numerical qualification. He’s been scratched from his final scheduled start tonight to get ready for his postseason role out of the pen, so it’s time to look back on his season. It was an excellent campaign for the 24 year old right-hander and it’s only a sign of things to come.

Right off the bat, it’s worth noting that these numbers would look even better if the Angels didn’t possess some sort of Rick Porcello kryptonite, as he participated in two blowup starts involving that opponent. But I won’t drop those starts out because you don’t need to drop those two starts out to demonstrate Porcello’s ascendancy into the upper ranks of AL starting pitchers. (19th in WAR, 6th in xFIP, 17th in FIP in the AL)

It’s well documented that Porcello scrapped his very troublesome slider for a curveball and started throwing the changeup more often this year. It’s also worth noting that he is 24 years old and has 149 MLB starts under his belt. Pitchers tend to peak in their late twenties and here Porcello is a year away from free agency and he won’t be 25 until two days after Christmas. Which is to say, there’s more development coming. Verlander didn’t become VERLANDER until he was 26. Scherzer came even later. Rick Porcello has loads of MLB experience ahead of his prime and things are looking great.

Let’s start with his strikeout and walk rates over the course of his career, both per 9 and as percentages of total batters faced:

pic1 pic2

So what we have here is a pitcher with a very low walk rate who went from modest strikeout gains every year to a huge leap in strikeouts this year. And if we’re talking strikeouts, it gets better if you look month to month. Porcello had some fluctuation this year, but he had four months that were as good or better than about every month he had previously in his career. Only July stands out, because as we documented in earlier work, Porcello’s breakout came after his disaster start on April 20. This is the new Porcello:

pic3

He’s also seeing an uptick in his ground ball percentage.

pic4

Wrap that all together and you’ve got yourself a heck of a trend in terms of run prevention and expected run prevention.

pic5

Porcello’s ERA is always going to look on the high side if he plays in front of a poor infield defense like the Tigers (Iglesias will help big time), but he’s lowered it every season in conjunction with better peripheral numbers. He doesn’t walk people, he dramatically increased his strikeout rate, and he gets a ton of ground balls, which are good because ground balls don’t go for extra base hits nearly as often as fly balls.

But it’s more than his ability to keep guys off the bases with his new found love of the strikeout, it’s what’s happening even when he allows a ball to be put in play. He’s allowed the lowest slugging percentage against of his career. His well-hit average against is the lowest of his career and the same is true of his wOBA against.

Not only is Porcello striking out more batters, he’s also inducing weaker contact when batters do manage to put the ball in play. He’s getting better results, too, and he’s still just 24. Let’s look at Verlander and Porcello side by side through their age 24 seasons:

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Rick Porcello 149 866.1 5.43 2.31 0.97 0.312 4.52 4.12 3.93 12
Justin Verlander 64 399 7.08 2.98 0.95 0.288 3.74 4.17 4.31 7.1

That’s right, Porcello had a better FIP and xFIP through age 24 in twice as many innings as the great Verlander and he has a higher WAR through age 24 as well. It’s often difficult to realize that while Porcello has been around forever, he’s also just a kid. He’s done more before his 25th birthday than Verlander and Verlander just signed a $200 million contract. A lot can happen from 25-30.

Like this:

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Justin Verlander 201 1367 8.87 2.71 0.75 0.288 3.32 3.18 3.56 36.5

Well, then. Justin Verlander got way better after his 25th birthday. He increased his K/9 by 2 and dropped his walk rate a bit, which turned into a lower ERA, FIP, and xFIP despite the same BABIP. He increased his innings per start from 6.2 to 6.8 and became the best and richest pitcher in the sport.

I’m not saying Porcello’s going to be Verlander. Not at all. But he’s going to be really good because pitchers who are this good when they’re young (and who stay healthy) get better when they hit their prime. Porcello’s prime is still coming. He’s never missed a start due to injury and he’s making the kinds of progressions that we’d expect to see from a pitcher developing into a star.

When I wrote back in June about Porcello’s breakout I made very similar comparisons and used very similar looking graphs. It all looks the same today. This wasn’t a month long blip. This was a real thing and it’s about to get even real-er. Porcello will be 25 next season and entering his walk year. The Tigers have a lot of big contracts promised to their high end talent and Cabrera and Scherzer are both looming extensions coming in the next 24 months. But Cabrera is 30 and Scherzer will be 30 next summer. Rick Porcello is 24.

This may sound strange, but Rick Porcello is the guy you lock up. Maybe they’ll pay Scherzer and Cabrera too, but Porcello is the bet to make today. A long term deal buys his late twenties – his prime – instead of paying Scherzer and Cabs for their thirties, and it’s time to strike before the Rays, A’s, and Red Sox get their sabermetric claws out. The Cubs are going to be looking to contend in 2015. So are the Astros. That should scare you if you’re a Tigers fan because I promise you those teams see the value in Porcello. You can’t let him get away because he’s good and he’s young. The Tigers need to sign Porcello to a 5 year deal tonight while he’s watching Jose Alvarez fill in for him as he gets ready to move to the pen for the playoffs.

Porcello is unquestionably baseball’s best 5th starter. It’s what makes the Tigers great and it’s what will make the Tigers great for years to come, except in two years he won’t be the #5, he’ll be the #2. This season was Porcello’s breakout and it’s been a joy to watch. We’ve seen his last start in 2013, but if the Tigers are smart, we’ll have years more to enjoy.

Advertisements

Al Alburquerque’s Magic Pitch

alal

Let’s get a few things out of the way early. Al Alburquerque gets a lot of strikeouts and issues a lot of walks. 33.7% of the batters he has faced in his career have struck out. 16.1% have walked. Add those together and we’re talking about 49.8% of his career has been spent not letting the hitter put the ball in play. It should also be noted that his arm should probably fall off given that pitching with good mechanics is very violent and he doesn’t have good mechanics.

Al-Al (as I’ll refer to him because his last name takes forever to type) is really good at not allowing batters to make contact and when they do, it’s not usually great contact. In his career, he’s allowed a .291 SLG (MLB average is about .400). In 95.1 IP, he has a 2.93 ERA, 2.71 FIP, and 1.9 WAR. He’s been erratic, but he’s been very effective – and that includes slightly elevated 2013 numbers based on an out of the ordinary BABIP. He’s not likely to produce a .220 BABIP like he did in 2012, but .350 is likely too high as well.

All in all, Al-Al is a dangerously talented all or nothing kind of arm. He might throw 10 straight balls or he might retire six batters like nothing. You know this about him and you know that he’s got a two pitch mix. Fastball, slider. That’s it. The fastball is good when he can command it, but his moneymaker is his slider. This post is about that slider for no other reason than it is incredible.

Since he only has 95.1 career innings, I’m going to stick with career long stats entering play on August 28th. Coming in, Pitch F/X says he’s thrown 974 sliders (about 60% of his pitches) and has allowed a .130/.226/.148 line against, good for a .186 wOBA and 20 wRC+. Those are insane numbers. Against Al-Al’s slider, hitters are 80% worse than league average. They slug 100 points lower than league average batting average. It’s incredible.

He gets a 24% swinging strike rate against it. League average in 2013 is 9.2%. He gets a 47.9% Contact%. League average is 79.7%. Among pitchers to throw 600+ sliders in the Pitch F/X era, no one has a higher Whiff/Swing rate on that pitch than Al-Al’s 54%. It’s nasty. When batters hit it, it rarely does much. And they don’t hit it very often.

As far as its properties, it only averages 1.5 inches of horizontal movement, but has a very nice -0.4 vertical movement (remember vertical movement is compared to where it would be compared to a pitch that isn’t spinning without gravity). I’ll show you. He’s gone 80-90 with a an 86 mph average:

pic1

But let’s get fancy and look at vertical movement with horizontal:

pic2

It’s a good slider, but it’s not the best slider if you’re looking at it in terms of its basic properties. It’s 86 mph with 0-5 inches of horizontal break and somewhere in the 5 to -5 vertical range (remember this factors out gravity!). That’s a nice slider, but its not the best in the league. The key, I imagine, is how difficult the pitch is to pick up. Let’s consider a couple of images:

pic3

Hopefully you can see that the ball is behind his head. I think this is a slider, but I can’t be sure. He’s hiding that ball for a long time. Let’s try to get a better screen grab:

Screenshot 2013-08-27 at 11.15.26 PM

What are you supposed to do with that? By that point in his delivery, Verlander has the ball way out in the open. Not surprisingly, Trumbo swung and missed at this slider. (PS: If someone can teach me to make GIFs, that would be super cool).

Screenshot 2013-08-27 at 11.17.54 PM

So let’s review. Alburquerque’s slider is very effective and his main fault is being wild. His slider has solid movement and velocity, but the key is that you just can’t see it coming. I can only imagine what it’s like to stand in the batter’s box. The ball comes from behind his head!

Two lessons jump out. One, if Al-Al finds a way to get down to like, 4 walks per 9, he’ll be the most dominant reliever in the game. Two, his elbow is going to explode at some point. Elbows shouldn’t move like normal pitchers make them move. This movement is just ridiculous. Good luck, people facing him. I would just recommend you look for a walk.

Jon Heyman Kills The Win While Trying to Save It

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Here at New English D we are on the front lines of the #KillTheWin movement. If you’re new to the site and are open-minded, please check out our 5 part series on why wins aren’t useful:

All of those links make a singular case. Wins are not useful when evaluating individual pitchers. The goal of baseball fans and analysts is to properly understand the game we love. Wins don’t cause poverty, but wins are detrimental to our understanding of baseball because so many people use them as a measure of value, which they are not.

Today, Jon Heyman wrote about Max Scherzer (currently leading the league in wins by a lot) and couldn’t resist fighting back against the #KillTheWin movement. He makes several points. First, he argues that Scherzer should narrowly beat Felix for the AL Cy. Hey, we agree on that! Second, he says those of us trying to kill the win are wasting our time. That’s silly because we enjoy killing the win and baseball is about having fun, but I’m not going to engage in pettiness when the real issues are much more important.

Next, Heyman says:

Wins do matter (though clearly not nearly as much as we once thought — and I give the stat guys credit for pointing this out.) No starter gets to 19-1 only because they are lucky, or because they “happened” to be “standing on the mound” when his team scored a ton of runs, as some would have you believe.

So here we see Heyman acknowledge that he places less stock in wins today that he used to. Meaning that he was wrong before and therefore could be wrong again. Furthermore, Heyman says no one goes 19-1 because of luck/happenstance/standing on the mound. Actually, Jon, they do. Scherzer is an excellent starting pitcher, but he is not meaningfully better than Felix. Certainly not better than Kershaw or Harvey. Yet he has many more wins than they do and many fewer losses. The difference is that the Tigers score crazy amount of runs for Scherzer because they are really good at scoring runs. Additionally, he gets more runs than his other rotation-mates. Scherzer gets 7.32 runs per 9. Felix gets 4.73. Chris Sale gets 3.03.

Even if you want to dramatically oversimplify baseball and assume a pitcher controls everything that happens when he is on the mound (he doesn’t), he still has no control over what his offense does. In order to get a win, you have to be in the game when your team takes the lead for the final time. If you team doesn’t score, or scores AT THE WRONG TIME, you do not get a win regardless of how you pitched.

It’s obvious that Heyman knows this based on his comments throughout the piece:

There are a lot better numbers to illustrate a pitcher’s performance over a season than wins and losses.

But does that mean a pitcher’s record is now totally worthless?

Heyman argues that wins are not the most important thing, but that they are not worthless. Which poses the important question at which I will now arrive. What do wins tell us that we can’t see in other stats?

What is the value of seeing a W/L record beyond seeing things like ERA, K%, BB%, GB%, FIP, xFIP, WAR, RE24, SwStr%, IP, etc? What do wins and losses add to the discussion?

Nothing. Not one thing. Heyman says consistency, but that isn’t the case. Check out the link about about “misleading” and you’ll see that argument doesn’t hold water. Good, consistent pitchers can win less often than bad and inconsistent ones. Heyman says wins aren’t about being in the right place at the right time, but they clearly are. The Tigers score a disproportionate number of runs for Scherzer than they do for his teammates. Scherzer is both good and lucky. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but that doesn’t mean he should get credit for something he had nothing to do with.

Scherzer is great. He has an excellent W/L record. Those two things are related, but not highly related. Good pitchers, on average, win more often than bad ones because they have some control over the number of runs they allow but that doesn’t mean judging a player by wins and losses is useful. It adds nothing to our understanding and does more harm than good. Heyman cites Tillman making the ASG as case and point.

Wins influence people’s thinking, whether it’s Tillman in the ASG or it’s Dusty Baker leaving Bailey on the mound when he was losing it so he could “have a chance to get a win.”

My argument here is that wins provide us with no meaningful information and at best are trivial and at worst are negatively impacting games. Heyman concludes:

The goal, ultimately, is to win games when a pitcher takes the mound, and Scherzer has done that better than anybody. Yes, there is a lot of luck involved in getting pitcher wins. But in Scherzer’s case, he has pitched great, too, and no one should claim he hasn’t.

Which is interesting, because the Scherzer is getting a lot of luck as far as wins go. Sale isn’t pitching as well as Scherzer, but he’s not pitching 9-12 to 19-1 worse. Also, Heyman is using a strawman argument in his closing. No one, not one single person, thinks Scherzer hasn’t been great. He’s been amazing. Fantastic. Cy Young or very close to it, brilliant. That’s not what this is about at all. He’s 19-1 and Chris Sale is 9-12. He’s not “10 wins” better than Sale. Not under any real definition of pitching ability or performance. This is a statistic that doesn’t reflect performance at all. It adds nothing to the conversation you can’t get elsewhere. That’s why we want to kill it.

I would like to point out the broader issue. Heyman is actually one of the more evolutionary members of the old guard. He clearly sees the fault in wins, but still wants to defend them. Read his defense. Think about it for yourself, it’s like he wants to hold onto wins because he’s used to them. And that’s not a good reason. “How we’ve always done things” is not a good way to make decisions.

I don’t understand the purpose of Heyman’s argument. Why does he want to save them? What utility do they bring to the conversation? This is not a personal assault on Heyman, but he put his views out there in writing, so they are open to criticism. I’m an academic and a baseball writer, so I know about critical feedback. You’re welcome to criticize my reasoning as well. I can take it, don’t worry. I offered Heyman a chance to clarify his message on Twitter and he has yet to do so. If he writes back, I’ll be glad to amend this post.

There is no value in looking at wins and losses for a starting pitcher. That’s not about Scherzer or Felix, it’s about analysts and fans. In fact, Heyman and his fellow BBWAA members should use their access to go ask Scherzer about wins, or even Google his quotes on the issue. He gets it and he’s the person who benefits most from looking at wins. If he doesn’t care about them, it’s time to let them go.

The 2013 Tigers Are (Almost) The Best Rotation Ever

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In mid-June I wrote that the Tigers’ starting rotation was on pace to be the best starting staff in MLB history by Fielding Independent Pitching (what’s FIP?) which is a statistic that measures the three true outcomes a pitcher has complete control over and scales it to look like ERA. Based on strikeouts, walks, and homeruns – the Tigers are on pace for an historic season.

If you don’t know much about FIP, click on the link above to see why it’s a better reflection of a pitcher’s true talent than ERA which depends a lot on the defense behind the pitcher. Another statistic, Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), considers a pitcher’s GB/FB rate and averages out their HR/FB%, but unfortunately we don’t have batted ball data before 2002. We have FIP data all the way back to the beginning of MLB history. If we start in 1901 and run through Saturday, the Tigers have the third best FIP of all time. What I’m about to show you is FIP-, which is simply FIP adjusted for park effects and league average which allows us to compare teams in different run scoring environments. 100 is league average and a point above or below is a point better or worse than average. A FIP- of 95 is 5% better than average. Here are the top five FIP- in MLB history:

Rank Season Team FIP-
5 1996 Braves 78
4 1997 Braves 78
3 2013 Tigers 78
2 2011 Phillies 77
1 1971 White Sox 77

Two months ago, the Tigers had a starting rotation FIP- of 64, and they’ve since come back to the pack because that would have been a crazy good number. Despite struggles from Verlander and a few bad starts from Fister, the Tigers still have the 3rd best rotation in MLB history.

They are getting contributions from everyone in the rotation, too. Here are a series of tweets I send out Saturday night about the Tigers rotation:

The rotation is deep. Here are some basic numbers:

Name IP WAR ERA- FIP
Anibal Sanchez 111 3.7 63 61
Max Scherzer 151.1 4.5 70 67
Doug Fister 143 3.1 86 80
Justin Verlander 143.2 3.1 95 84
Rick Porcello 110.1 2.0 111 86
Jose Alvarez 19.2 -0.2 123 147

Only Alvarez (and his 20 IP) has a FIP that isn’t at least 14% better than average and all of the main five starters have at least 2.0 wins above replacement or more (what’s WAR?). In fact, despite having an ERA a bit worse than their FIP due to some less than perfect defense behind them, the Tigers rank very well in both all time.

pic1

More teams have allowed fewer runs relative to average, but only two teams have ever done so thanks to better pitching. The Tigers aren’t a lock to set this record, but they are pitching very well right now and are currently hanging right around the strikeout rate record as well.

The Tigers are a good team top to bottom with a great offense, but their starting pitching is the flashy component. They have baseball’s best offense and best pitching staff – and the pitching staff might be one of the best all time. I’ve written a lot about the different Tigers starters and what makes them great this season. You can find every one of those pieces in our Tigers Breakdowns section along with a piece about how the Tigers are utilizing the changeup as a weapon more and more.

With 53 games to play, the Tigers are not in position to break the all-time record for FIP, but they are just 1% away from the top mark in history. With just a little better performance than they are on pace for, the Tigers could be the first team to ever have their starting staff pitch 26% better than league average for an entire season. It’s a remarkable record and one that isn’t nearly well-known enough.

National and local writers have made plenty out of the very good Tigers rotation, but with the exception of a piece by Dave Cameron at FanGraphs, I haven’t seen anyone else call attention to just how great this rotation truly is. The Tigers aren’t just pitching pretty well this season, they’re pitching better than all but two rotations in baseball history spanning more than 100 seasons.

With about two months left, this is going to be fun to watch.

Joe Blanton Defies The Odds

pic8

Over in the Community Research section of FanGraphs, I have a post exploring Joe Blanton’s extremely high HR rate, it’s place in history, and what might be causing it. If you’re interesting in pitching and statistical outliers, this might be for you. Take a look over at FanGraphs.

I’m always up to tackle difficult baseball questions, so if you’ve got a Tigers player you want to see broken down or really anything else in baseball, let me know on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44 or at NewEnglishD@gmail.com

Appointment Television: Baseball’s Must Watch Starting Pitchers (August 2013 Update)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In May, I rolled out our list of Appointment Television starting pitchers, or pitchers who were worth planning your baseball viewing (and life) schedule around. Today, as I did in June and July, I’d like to update that list and talk about the changes. The original list can be found here, which also includes a little more detail on the origin of the project. Recall that the order is tiered into stable and non stable (italics), but each ranking is meaningless.

Here is the gist from the original:

The methodology is simple but also subjective. To be classified as Appointment TV you have to have a high likelihood of pitching a gem. There is no set definition of gem or likelihood, but the idea is that to make this list, you have to be likely enough to throw a game worth clearing your schedule for. I think a number of pitchers qualify. Most are high strikeout guys, but that isn’t a requirement. If you are good enough to dominate on a semi-regular basis you’re in. If on your day to pitch, I make sure I’m aware of the start time so that I can check in, you’re Appointment TV.

This is a rolling list and pitchers will be added and subtracted throughout the season and it will be updated as necessary. There is no order other than that pitchers lower on the list in italics are recent additions, so if you’re wondering if Jordan Zimmermann really qualifies, know that he’s earned his way onto the list in his last few starts. Remember, this is a list of pitchers who on this date are can’t miss TV. These are not necessarily the best pitchers and plenty of good pitchers aren’t on the list.

Appointment Television Starting Pitchers:

  1. Justin Verlander
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Clayton Kershaw
  4. Felix Hernandez
  5. Yu Darvish
  6. Matt Harvey
  7. Cliff Lee
  8. Max Scherzer
  9. Anibal Sanchez
  10. Stephen Strasburg
  11. Chris Sale
  12. Doug Fister
  13. Jose Fernandez
  14. David Price
  15. Shelby Miller
  16. Mat Latos
  17. Derek Holland
  18. Jordan Zimmerman
  19. Francisco Liriano
  20. Homer Bailey
  21. Partrick Corbin
  22. Hiroki Kuroda
  23. Clay Buchholz  (On the DL, no return set)

Let’s talk about the changes. First of all, Jose Fernandez made the jump from the borderline region into the stable region because he continues to impress during his rookie season. Jordan Zimmernmann falls into the fringe ranks because while he is still pitching well, he hasn’t been turning in dominating, turn the game on and notice performances.

Everyone else on the list is in the same spot and the remaining changes are those who have joined the party. Francisco Liriano is impressing in Pittsburgh over his 95 IP this season. If he remains healthy, he should hold his spot on the list. Price is an obvious addition to the list. He’s been dominant since coming off the DL and was one of the top pitchers in the game last season. He’s now healthy and even more efficient than before.

Bailey, Corbin, and Kuroda are all having very nice seasons and have earned their way onto the list. They don’t make me turn my head quite as much as some others, but they have now pitched their way to the point where I will always be aware when they are on the mound.

Feel free to make a case for other starting pitchers who are must watch guys and we’ll consider adding them to the list.

Getting Ahead with Wainwright and Moore

pic1If you’re interested in non-Tigers analysis, I’ve got a post up in the Community Research section at FanGraphs comparing the seasons of Adam Wainwright and Matt Moore so far in 2013 focusing on the nearly identical rate with which their pitches hit the strikezone despite their wildly different walk rates. If you’re interesting in pitching, and especially the strategy involved, I hope you’ll check it out. Plenty of New English D style graphics, too.

Check it out over at FanGraphs.

What’s Going On With Verlander?

verlander

Justin Verlander was baseball’s best pitcher over the last four seasons, but this year Verlander has regressed all the way down to being, like, baseball’s 10th best pitcher. We’ve overblown his struggles because we’re used to him never struggling. He’s not 2009-2012 Justin Verlander, but he’s still better than almost anyone else in baseball.

That said, despite a respectable 3.69 ERA, 3.35 FIP (what’s FIP?), and 3.0 WAR (what’s WAR?), there are some signs of trouble. He has the lowest K/9 and highest BB/9 since his 2008 struggles:

pic1

The strikeout drop isn’t dramatic, but the walk differential is a bit concerning. He’s allowing a higher batting average against and a higher BABIP (what’s BABIP?) so some of this could be luck, but it could also be because he’s easier to hit. His line drive, fly ball, and ground ball rates are almost identical to his 2012 numbers .

The key for JV is a little bit of batted ball luck, but mostly it’s a strikeout to walk ratio problem. Try this on for size, in 2012, 32% of Verlander’s total batters faced ended in a walk, HBP, or strikeout. In 2013, it’s exactly the same. He’s allowing the same percentage of balls to be put in play as last season and he’s allowed the exact same line drive, fly ball, and ground ball mix. Exactly the same.

The difference for Verlander in 2013, we can say, is that he’s walking batters during at bats in which he used to strike them out. This is evident when you consider opposing hitters are chasing pitches outside the zone against Verlander less often and he’s getting fewer swinging strikes. Basically, batters aren’t chasing Verlander’s pitches and he isn’t inducing as many swings and misses as he did last season. As a result, instead of striking out a batter chasing on 3-2, he’s walking them which extends innings and makes the hits he does allow more costly in terms of run prevention.

He’s not allowing more balls in play as a percentage of batters faced, but he is allowing more overall because walks are extending his innings and giving other teams more chances to cash in. In 2012 he faced 3.7 batters per inning on average. In 2013 it’s 4.3. The problem with Verlander is that he’s doesn’t put hitters away with a strikeout and instead grants a walk. Everything else unravels from there.

What’s behind all of this?

I have two basic answers with one common cause. None of it has anything to do with his velocity. We’ve seen Verlander pitch effectively with lower velocity before and he’s been successful this season when he didn’t have a good fastball and he’s been bad this season when he has had the 95+mph.

pic9

This is something different. It’s something fixable. It’s not something we should worry too much about. Let’s break it down.

1. Movement on His Breaking Balls

Last season his curveball averaged 6.3 inches of horizontal movement and 8.5 inches of vertical movement (these are Pitch F/X numbers and are based on where the ball would be expected to finish based on a baseball that wasn’t rotating). This year, he’s at 5.2 and 7.7 inches respectively. It’s easier to see graphically (All graphs from catcher’s perspective. H/T to Brooks and FanGraphs):

pic2 pic3

Notice how his curveball has as much horizontal break as his slider this season when it used to have more in the past. Now let’s look at horizontal and vertical movement together.

pic4 pic5

You can see the problem in his slider too a little bit, actually. The curveball isn’t breaking horizontally enough and the slider doesn’t have enough vertical depth. Both pitches are blending into a hanging breaking ball. The slider is faster, but it lacks the vertical depth needed to get hitters (especially lefties) out. The curveball is essentially just a slower version of the slider with some vertical depth. Neither is what it was in 2012. In order for Verlander to use these pitches effectively, they need to have different properties. The curveball is a slower pitch with more break and the slider is faster with less. They need to be different in all three dimensions – velocity, horizontal, and vertical – and they need to both break more in general than they are this season.

As a result, hitters are laying off the sliders that they used to swing through and more of those sliders are getting called as balls. The curveball has still been an effective weapon at times, but he’s throwing it less often because it isn’t moving the way he wants it to.

This is a bit convoluted so I’lll try to make it clearer. His curveball is getting more swings than it used to and the contact against on it is up because it isn’t moving the way it used to. The slider is less effective because hitters are swinging less and it’s not landing in the zone. The curveball is more hittable and the slider is less enticing. This is problem number one.

2. Fastball…Movement

In the charts above, you could see the breaking ball problems if you looked at overall averages from each game. They are clear as day. But the fastball doesn’t look much different other than a bit of a drop in average velocity. But as I pointed out earlier, two of his rockiest starts have come when he had his best fastball. The success isn’t about velocity. It’s above vertical movement on his fastball and you can’t see the problem if you don’t look at every pitch.

The horizontal problem with the curveball and vertical issue with the slider are evident overall because they are a consistent problem. But the fastball issue is only some of the time, take a look at 2012 and then 2013:

pic6

pic7

Notice that missing cluster of fastballs in the 0-5 vertical movement section? Those are gone. He’s missing a subset of his fastballs that drop significantly on their way to the plate. You can see it in the horizontal and vertical plots too, 2012 and then 2013:

pic8 pic9

A cluster of fastballs (and changeups because of some Pitch F/X confusion) is missing that are just down and to the left of center. They are gone. It’s not like there are fewer or they aren’t moving as much, they are totally absent. And this isn’t a classification issue because we’re not talking about these being fastballs OR changeups, there simply are no pitches thrown in that location on the chart.

His fastballs all have the same general horizontal and vertical movement as each other this season when Verlander used to be able to go to a fastball that had more sink on it in 2012. Not having that pitch in his arsenal is likely the cause of a nearly 3% drop in his fastball swing and miss rate from 2012 to 2013. Verlander used to get more whiffs on the fastball and now he isn’t anymore and when they do make contact they do so for more line drives. They’re squaring up his fastball more because there is less variation in its movement.

So now that we’ve established the problem and the connection to the results, we have to ask what is responsible for this? Everyone wants to talk velocity, but two of his worst starts were two of his “best” fastball days. No friends, this is something much more technical.

Release Point

Let’s take a look at his release points form 2012 and 2013:

pic10 pic11

That looks awfully different. Terrifyingly different, one might say if they were prone to hyperbole. Let’s take a look at just curveballs and sliders first:

pic12 pic13

That’s a big difference. The scale is in feet. We’re talking about release the ball 6-12 inches different from normal in some cases, and at the very least it’s a more inconsistent release point that we saw in 2012. Let’s try fastballs and changeups:

pic14 pic15

Again, this is a big difference. I don’t even need to describe it to you. He’s releasing the ball closer to first base on his breaking balls and on his fastballs and changeups. This is the difference. It’s a mechanical issue that he needs to correct. I’m not a master of .gifs and screenshots, but I’ve seen the tape from 2012 and 2013 and can tell you he’s falling off to the first base side more in 2013 than he used to. His body is taking him away from the plate and it’s preventing him from getting on top of his pitches – which makes sense that he can’t get the vertical movement on some of his fastballs but the horizontal movement is just fine. It also explains the problem with his breaking balls. Less depth on the slider and less horizontal break on the curveball.

I’m not a pitching coach and I didn’t pitch growing up (I caught, so I can diagnose the problem even if I can’t fix it), but I can clearly see the problem. I don’t know if Verlander is out of whack in his timing or if he’s favoring a lower body injury, but this is what’s going on.

The problem with his pitches lines up with the problems in results and this release point problem explains it all very nicely. Something else could be wrong, but this definitely is. It’s right there in front of you.

This is good news for Tigers fans because it’s really easy to fix compared to an injury. Verlander can just straighten out and get back to being himself. He just signed a huge contract, so it’s good to see this might not be him wearing down but rather him just being out of sync. That’s actually the explanation he’s given the press. It seems to be true.

It also explains why he’s shown flashes of himself. Sometimes he does throw the ball from the right spot and those pitches do their thing. The problem is when he gets out of sync and he loses it, things can turn quickly. Have you noticed how it’s tended to blow up in some innings but rarely across entire games. This is Verlander fighting his delivery, not fighting his body.

And he can fix it. Heck, Scherzer has a way more complicated motion and he’s repeated that like a champ so far this season. It’s going to be okay Tigers fans, the ace isn’t fading, he’s just going through a bit of a rough patch. And he can find a way to fix it. (Here’s a post from August 6th, showing improvement!)

A Case Study in Wins

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

To bring you up to speed I’ve been laying out evidence over the last few weeks in an effort to help banish the pitcher win as a method for measuring individual performance. I’ve covered a number of topics such as:

The simple complaint with the win statistic is that it doesn’t measure individual performance but is used by people to reflect the quality of an individual. Wins are about pitchers, but they are also about run support, defense, the other team, and luck. We shouldn’t use such a blunt tool when measuring performance when we have better ones. I’ve provided a lot of evidence in the links above supporting this claim, but those have posts about the best and worst and about career long samples. Today, I’d like to offer a simple case study from 2012 to illustrated the problem with wins.

The faces I’ll put on this issue are Cliff Lee and Barry Zito, both of whom appeared on the lists above.

Let’s start with some simple numbers from their 2012 campaigns to get you up to speed. Lee threw more than 25 more inning than Zito and performed better across the board:

pic1

Lee had a much higher strikeout rate and much lower walk rate.

pic1

Lee had a lower ERA, FIP, and xFIP and if you prefer those numbers park and league adjusted, they tell the same story:

pic3

pic4

If you’re someone who likes Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or Win Probability Added (WPA) it all points in Lee’s favor as well:

pic5

By every reasonable season long statistic, Cliff Lee had a better season than Barry Zito. If you look more closely, you can see that Lee had a great year and Zito had a below average, but not terrible season. There is simply no case to be made that Barry Zito was a better pitcher than Cliff Lee during the 2012 season. None.

But I’m sure you can see where this is going. Cliff Lee’s Won-Loss record was 6-9 and Barry Zito’s was 15-8. Lee threw more innings, allowed fewer runs per 9, struck out more batters, walked fewer batters, and did just about everything a pitcher can do to prevent runs better than Barry Zito and he had a much worse won-loss record. Something is wrong with that. Let’s dig a bit deeper and consider their performances in Wins, Losses, and No Decisions.

Let’s start with something as simple as ERA. In Wins, Losses, and ND, Cliff Lee allowed fewer runs than Zito despite pitching his home games in a park that skews toward hitters and Zito in a park that skews toward pitchers:

pic6

In fact, Lee’s ERA in Losses is almost identical to Zito’s in No Decisions. He allowed the same number of runs when he pitched “poorly” enough to lose as when Zito pitched in a “neutral” way. If we take a look at strikeout to walk ratio, it looks even more lopsided:

pic7

Lee way outperforms Zito in the measure even if you put Lee’s “worst” starts up against Zito’s “best” ones. Let’s take a look at OPS against in these starts, and remember, Lee pitches in a hitters’ park and Zito in a pitchers’ park:

pic8

Again we find that Lee pitches as well in Losses and Zito does in No Decisions and performs much better across the board. Not only does Lee allow fewer runs in each type of decision, he has a better K/BB rate, and a lower OPS against in pitching environments that should favor Zito.

Everything about their individual seasons indicates that Cliff Lee had a much better season than Barry Zito and when you break it down by Wins, Losses, and Decisions, it is very clear that Lee performed better in all of these types of events. Lee was unquestionably better. No doubt. But Lee was 6-9 and Zito was 15-8. Zito won more games and lost fewer.

If we look at the earned run distribution, you can clearly see that Lee was better overall, on average, and by start:

pic9

You likely don’t need more convincing that Lee was better than Zito, in fact, you probably knew that from the start. Lee was better in every way, but Zito’s record was better. How can wins and losses be useful for measuring a player when they can be so wrong about such an obvious case?

Cliff Lee prevented runs better than Zito last season. He went deeper into games. More strikeouts, fewer walks, lower OPS against in a tougher park. He was better than Zito in Wins, Losses, and ND and often better in Losses than Zito was in ND. How can this be? It’s very simple. Wins and Losses aren’t just about the quality of the pitcher, not by a long shot. Even ignoring potential differences in defensive quality (Giants were slightly better) and assuming pitchers can control every aspect of run prevention it still isn’t enough. Lee was better and had a worse record. What good is a pitching statistic if it is this dependent on your offense? It isn’t any good.

Here friends, are their run support per 9 numbers. This should tell you the whole story:

pic10

The Giants got Zito 6 runs a game on average and the Phillies got Lee 3.2. It didn’t matter that Lee way out pitched Zito, he still had no shot to win as many games because the Giants scored runs for Zito and the Phillies didn’t score for Lee. The Giants during the entire season scored 4.4 runs per game. The Phillies scored 4.2. This isn’t as easy as saying that pitchers on better teams win more often. Lee’s team scored much less for him on average and the Giants scored much more for Zito on average.

You can’t just say that a pitcher with a great offense will win more often, it comes down to the precise moments in which they score. How can that possibly have anything to do with the pitchers this statistic hopes to measure? It can’t.

If my global evidence about the subjectivity and uselessness of wins didn’t get you, I hope that this has. There is no justification for using wins to measure pitchers when something like this can happen. Lee was much better than Zito in every way, but if you’re using wins and losses, you wouldn’t know it.

And, just in case you were wondering, Lee was a better hitter too.

pic11

On Max Scherzer and Falling in Love

ms

Sometimes it’s instantaneous. Like the first time I saw Porcello’s two-seam fastball break across the plate or the intial glimpse of Doug Fister jumping off the mound to field his position with such enthusiasm and grace. Seeing Inge gun down a baserunner at old Ned Skeldon Stadium on Key Street.

Other times it’s slower. Quieter. It builds over time. Such is the case with Max Scherzer. It was never that I didn’t like him, but rather that he came to us in such a painful way. He cost the Tigers Curtis Granderson in what looked a lot like a salary dump, but proved to be much shrewder. At the time it was hard to totally accept him. He was talented, but it was also maddening to watch someone which such amazing stuff fall just short of putting it all together so frequently. He was always one little mechanical adjustment from being a star and he teased us over and over.

But things changed, as they often do. I started to think about it 383 days ago, before this website even existed, when I was checking my phone for the last time before going to bed, only to come across a rumor that Max’s brother had taken his own life. That little part of me that couldn’t fully get my arms around Scherzer seemed so small when a member of the team I love faced such an awful personal tragedy.

I almost wrote this post 261 days ago. Scherzer had just won the series clincher against the Yankees and propelled the Tigers into the World Series. I’m serious when I tell you I haven’t cried since my dog passed away 8 years ago, but I almost did that night. Not because the Tigers won, but because of what Dave Dombrowski said when he was accepting the AL pennant:

“As I look to my right, today’s winning pitcher, with his family which had an extremely difficult time, I can’t think of a better feeling for their family and his parents.”

Four months after one of the worst things any of us will probably ever experience, Scherzer and his family were celebrating a 10 strikeout, pennant-clinching performance. Not only had he finally mastered his command, but he had done so with such a heavy heart. At this point, I couldn’t imagine caring about who we traded to get him.

I almost wrote this post 92 days ago, when ESPN published a heartbreaking feature on the Scherzer family and Max’s relationship with his brother. Seriously, if you haven’t read it, stop reading this and go read that instead. I won’t even try to tell you how sad and sweet and meaningful it is.

I almost wrote this post 81 days ago, in the wee hours of April 18th, after Scherzer had twirled a gem against the Mariners on my birthday in a four and a half hour, 14 inning affair that ended with Brayan Pena getting clobbered by Justin Smoak and managing to hold onto the ball. I actually started to write this post that day, but I couldn’t put the pieces together. Not quite yet.

Any early coolness I felt toward Max had long since vanished and he was becoming one of my favorite players to watch and to cheer for. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m one of the most loyal people you’ll meet. If you endear yourself to me, you’ll have my undying support, pretty much forever. I’ll stand by Inge, Raburn, and Kelly despite their flaws until they put me in the ground, and Scherzer had made the leap to that level. He was one of ours. Through everything. Always a Tiger.

But I’m glad I didn’t write it then, not because Max had anything left to prove to me but because he was about to prove so much to everyone else. As the first half of 2013 winds down, Scherzer currently leads qualifying American League starters in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), is 3rd in xFIP, 9th in ERA, 2nd in K/9, 14th in BB/9, and 9th in innings pitched despite being a start behind because of where he pitches in the rotation. He is also, as you may have seen in publications that care about such things, 13-0.

He’s going to his first All-Star Game, and he’s likely to start given how much stock most people still place in wins and losses for pitchers. Scherzer deserves it, but it’s not as obvious as some people think. Others are having great seasons too.

He is finally putting it all together on the field, and so I’m glad I waited until now to finally write this. It’s nice to know that I probably would have fallen in love just as much had he not been touched by tragedy. He’s achieving his potential as a starter after overcoming so much as a person. It’s hard not to love Max Scherzer.

But it’s more than that because you learn things along the way. I’ve always known that Scherzer has heterochromia (or two different colored eyes), but now I know that so do Jack Bauer and Mila Kunis. That’s a good list to be on. Max is also something of genius. He’s always presented himself as an intelligent guy, but I learned this year he got a 35 on the ACT and that he discussed complex world politics with his brother.

Of course, too, there’s his interest in sabermetrics. His brother, an econ major, actually got him into it a couple of years ago and he’s run with it ever since. He’s used advanced stats to understand the game and his approach better and it’s certainly working, even if Verlander sometimes mocks him for it on national television.

Scherzer isn’t just a great starter with a compelling personal story that makes you want to root for him, he’s also a really smart guy who takes a very intellectual approach to the game of baseball. The only thing missing is a strong connection to charity work or maybe bringing a Golden Retriever to the mound. He’s got the first one covered. 

Max was all of these things, likely, before he came to the Tigers. He’s always been this guy, but his growth as a pitcher has been remarkable and fun to watch while the tragedy in his life has made me relate to him on a personal level. Not only is he a great Tiger, he’s a person I’m really pulling for.

His brother lost a fight with mental illness, and that’s something that’s pretty close to home for me. I don’t know if it’s because I feel like I understand how much he must be hurting or because I just feel so terrible that the Scherzer’s had to watch someone they love suffer, look like he was getting better, and then suddenly slip away. That has to be harder than almost anything.

It’s really important to me that the athletes I love earn admiration for what they do outside the lines. Becoming an elite athlete takes hard work, but it’s also a lot of genetic luck. The real measure of a man is who they are everywhere else and Scherzer is one of the good guys. He’s a force on the mound, but he also puts the “thinking man” in the thinking man’s game.

There’s an ineffable depth to Scherzer that’s pretty uncommon in the world of sports. Few seem to understand their craft and their world as well as he does. It’s impossible to know how much of who I think Scherzer is reflects reality, but I think it does.

Sports are about a lot of things. Competition, teamwork, hustle. But they’re also, for my money, about the fans. To be a fan is to be a member of a community. A family. People who share a common purpose, a common goal, and common interests. Sports are fun and they’re a place where really different people can come together.

The relationship I have with the Tigers is a more meaningful and rewarding relationship than almost any one I have with another person. They’re my team. My family. I don’t know if that makes me pathetic or awesome, but I don’t really care. It makes me feel good and it’s something I love.

My connection is to the Tigers as a team, as an idea even, but through that connection I bond with the players. Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes it takes longer, but I always come around. They’re my team, no matter what. That sounds like family to me, even if the relationship is a tad asymmetric.

So I don’t get angry when the team struggles or underperforms like many bangwagon fans do because they’re my team in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, in good times and in bad. They don’t have to win for me to love them, they just have to keep showing up and giving it their best and in return, they have my everlasting affection.

That’s one of the reasons that what happened to the Scherzer family touched me so much. They were hurting, so I hurt too. Solidarity among friends. One of the Tigers went through a terrible time and I was there, every fifth day on my couch, supporting him.

I have a story like this, although not quite so deep, for every player. Baseball is important to me and it’s a big part of who I am. The team is like my wife and the players are like my family. That’s how I experience sports, on an emotional level. This is an analytically focused site, but sabermetricians are people too.

We fall in love and experience joy and heartbreak like everyone else. Max Scherzer is one of us. He’s a Tiger and smart dude, and he knows about the quiet suffering of a loved one with mental illness. I can’t imagine someone I rather root for than him, even if it took me a while to see it.

%d bloggers like this: